18 January, 2009

Mass, Ritual, and Tea

Davelcorp wrote a few years back, "Tea fulfils the need for ritual in my life." I've been thinking about ritual, tea, and whatnot.

On Wednesday nights, I run down the street in a long, black robe, invariably late for Zen practice. On Sunday mornings, I run down the same street in a different black robe, invariably late for High Mass. There's a lot of ritual in my life, including tea ritual. How much of it is useful? What on earth does it mean anyway?

Tasting Session

The university here is old, and it's always been packed with the strange rituals that you'd expect to accumulate over long periods of time. It dates back to a little after the Norman conquest of England, some time around 1090 a.d., and has always been a religious institution - it's primary function for the majority of existence was to train clergy for a life of service to the Church. Up until the Reformation in 1536, that meant the Roman Catholic church. After that, it meant the national church, the Church of England (a.k.a. "the Episcopal Church" in the U.S.A.).

In fact, up until 1880, you could only join the university if you were a communicant of the Church of England, and had to swear an oath of allegiance on the Book of Common Prayer during matriculation. It's still illegal for the Queen to marry a Roman Catholic, which seems rather at odds with our supposedly egalitarian and ecumenical society.

Even though these days you can be Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Jewish, Hindi, Atheist, or Pastafarean and still join the university, the religious undercurrent remains strong. Almost all of the 44 Colleges and Halls have their own chapel, chaplains, and choir, with the larger colleges celebrating Mass every morning, and singing Evensong every night. That's a lot of communion wine...


Every year, a sizeable proportion of the new intake of Freshers end up at some chapel or other. There's a lot of ritual to learn, as the university tends to be a bit more rigorous than we'd typically see at school. Bow here, kneel there, nod there. Sing in Latin (unigenite does not rhyme with anything), sing in Greek. It's all very confusing to the newcomer - I remember it well, being in the same situation and behaving the same way, and I recognise the familiar expression of mild confusion and determination on the faces of every new student.

Everyone learns the ritual, but how many students finds out what that ritual means? If it has no meaning, why are we doing it?

Some of the good chaplains teach the meaning of the ritual to the new students, but most are left to pick it up themselves. Being a stubborn type, not given to expending effort without reason, I try to learn the meanings of these things. If I'm supposed to be down on one knee as I first approach the altar at High Mass, I want to know why. If I'm supposed to sit in zazen with my left hand uppermost and my right hand lowermost, thumbs touching, I want to know why. If I'm pouring tea into an aroma cup before the tasting cup, it's got to be for a reason.

Each part of the ritual in the High Mass, and in zazen, is an expression of something on the inside. If we bow at the altar in High Mass, it's to express respect and adoration for something that we respect and adore (in the literal sense). If we have our thumbs touching in zazen, it's so that we can ensure a state of mindfulness. If we pour tea into a tall thin cup to smell the aroma, it's because the aroma can more easily be ascertained from something with that shape and evaporative quality.

This (eventually) brings me to the point of all this verbosity: blindly following ritual without questioning it is dangerous.

At Mass, the Freshers are learning the ritual to fit in. They don't want to look as if they don't know what they're doing. They want acceptance. At zazen, it's the same. In performing gongfucha, it's the same. I did this; maybe you did, too. We assume that the ritual is right because we have imbued the people that are telling us about it with some kind of authority, whether or not that authority is deserved, or justified.

I remember reading a tea web-site that told me the optimal brewing time was the time taken for the water to evaporate from the outside of the teapot. Without questioning it, I brewed tea like that for a week or so. My tea tasted awful. I pushed on, because I had unconsciously given that tea web-site some authority in my mind - they couldn't be wrong, they'd been writing for ages! Weeks later, I finally questioned it, varied the parameters according to my own observation, and got some better brews.

It happened all the time. I would go from one seemingly authorative web-site to another, picking up ritual quite blindly, trying to find out the "right way" to perform gongfucha. I had to have certain shapes of teapot for every micro-variety of tea. I had to use X grams of leaf for Y millilitres of water. I had to use water heated to Z degrees. Surely, these authorities knew the "right way" for gongfucha, and I had to learn it.

2004 6FTM 55th Anniversary

After many weeks, I started to drop these bad habits, as I began to question more and more the authority that I had given these sources. That's not to say that they were wrong, but simply that I was taking them far too literally, and simply trying to find that "right way".

There is no "right way". Not in gongfucha, not in High Mass, not in zazen, not in writing that essay, not in validating that theorem, not in making par on that tricky 18th hole.

Doing it wrong is very beneficial, oddly enough, because it enables us to find out better ways of doing it ourselves. In Zen, it is said that "delusion is valuable, it is like ice - the more delusion we have, the more obvious the effect when it is melted." The more howlingly bad our tea is when we follow some authority's "right way", the more obvious it is when we find that particular method that works for us.

Zen monks approved to teach do not say, "Listen to me, I can make you achieve state XYZ." Priests in chapel do not say, "I can make you feel the presence of God." The golf coach does not say, "Follow my words and you'll hit a hole-in-one." The professor does not say, "I will describe to you how to create a new important theory." They are just fingers pointing at the moon, signposts to a goal which we can only reach on our own. They may have reached that goal themselves, and so their opinions may be worth heeding - but these are just opinions. There is no right way - not to God, not to making par, not to making a decent brew.

Montana Moon

This is why gongfucha is so vital, I think. It is unprescribed - and unproscribed. Nothing is ruled out. Nothing is set in stone. Occasionally, we will come across a poetic series of steps for making tea, usually written in a series of four Chinese characters per step - but there is no standard, no benchmark, no right way. The quality of the result is itself the ultimate arbiter.

So, just make tea. Make lots and lots and lots of tea, and find out what's best for you. Your tastes will change as you drink more, and so your method will change to suit those tastes. Who can tell you how to make that perfect cup?


Next time you read an article about making the tea leaves rotate anticlockwise, or how your teapot has to be egg-shaped, or how your kettle has to be constructed and heated, remember - these are just opinions. These are opinions being reported by people who have found out what works for them. They're not the "right way".

Question everything.
Take what works,
Change what doesn't.


Jamus said...


An absolutely beautiful rant my friend! There has been a lot of talk going around lately on the proper way to brew and the proper vessels to use. I think everyone goes through a stage where they look to others in order to feel they're brewing the proper way. Perhaps part of that is security of knowing how it is supposed to be done. Part of that is the need to be accepted socially. Over time, you definitely get a feel for it and throw much of the 'wisdom' clean out the window. I have found there are steps that I repeat every time. When I'm not familiar with a tea, I usually brew in a gaiwan, and I have a pretty consistent brewing timetable that I follow, but that was my own curiosities I decided to drink that way. It makes me think about Picasso. Everyone knows his abstract works, but he learned the classical style of painting too. There are works of his out there that many people don't recognize, simply because they look real. Noses aren't hanging off the side of everyone's face. He learned the traditional method, mastered it, and then left it clean in the dust. We're just working with a different medium.


Anonymous said...


great article and a great comment by jamus. i have nothing more to add to both.

p.s.: as always, beautiful photos, well lit!!

Brent said...

Well said! I really enjoyed reading this, so thank you for taking the time to write it.

Even after taking so much advice about Yixing pots' porosity, shape, spout curvature, etc., I just find it more pleasing to brew everything in a gaiwan. The extra 1-2% improvement in quality isn't worth it to me when I get so much more enjoyment from brewing simply.

On another note, "Fingers pointing at the moon" really is a great metaphor, isn't it? :D


Hobbes said...

Dear Jamus,

Thanks for the detailed comment, I really appreciate reading it.

More "gentle suggestion" than rant, I hope :)

You're right - security. That's absolutely correct. People want to know that they're not wasting their time, they want to maximise their chances of doing whatever it is they're doing correctly. This is healthy - taking one's cue from an expert is a good thing, as long as it is taken with a spirit of exploration. Just like Picasso, absolutely. My favourite quote on this subject is one I overuse, so I didn't include it in the article:

"Learn the rules, then forget them." - Basho

I also like to paraphrase the Buddha at this stage, who essentially said, "Take everything I'm saying with a pinch of salt, and accept only what you can verify yourself."

Just finished your 8100 sample, by the way, and was impressed by its excellent value ($12). Thanks again.

Dear Anonymous and Brent,

Glad you liked it. Finger-pointing at moons is a good metaphor, one I like to wear out as frequently as possible ;)

Toodlepip all,


Jamus said...


"Gentle suggestion" works as well, although I definitely sense a bit of spirit and some firm feeling behind your words with this one. Excited captures the energy, but doesn't carry it alone as a complete thought. Bombastic is another word I enjoy, but not appropriate as your words definitely aren't pompous. After careful consideration, I'll settle once again on "beautiful rant." I hope you don't mind too much. ^__^


Anonymous said...

Dear Hobbes,

I couldn't agree more with your post, especially since I discussed exactly the same topic a few hours ago in a completely different place funnily.

Though this post brings up many good memories, practical questions are also troubling my mind at this very moment, like that one : which chapel is it?
I don't seem to remember it. It cannot be Chch for many reasons, nor Oriel... I'd say All Souls (since I could not see despite my tryings to break up in with various tricks that were complete failures), or Exxeter maybe, but I am not sure and it bothers me to no end...
Please tell me for the sake of my sleep.

Hobbes said...

Dear Jamus,

I wish I had the spleen for a good rant every now and again, some real spittle-ejecting vitriol. :)

Dear iwii,

That's Exeter, good eye! The Gothic paradise. I love that evil black spire.



Anonymous said...

Exxeter's chapel remained so dark in my mind. That's really strange. The day you took the picture might have been a day that was very sunny in the evening I suppose? Probably you've taken it a long time ago haven't you?

Brian H said...

Well said Hobbes. Due to individuality religion and or philosophy cannot be homogenized. By our very nature it must be projected through the perception of the individual. Everyone has their own version of it perceived through their own filters. This is not the downfall of religions…philosophies, but their very vitality. So it is in all things…including tea.

You remind me of a story. There was a man in India who happened by a courtyard where a sage was speaking. He decided to stay and listen. He thought the man was very wise and enjoyed the talk. After it was over the man approached the sage and asked him a question. Master, he said, I believe you have spoken many truths but I have a question...why should I believe you? To which the sage replied, if you believed me you would be a fool. Seek the truth for yourself and then you won’t have to be told.


Arcane-Dissonance said...


Beautiful post. Your words are very true.

I am a material chemist for a company that creates filtration membranes. The company wastes many months a year and an untold number of dollars trying to do things the “right” way. One person will perform an experiment once or twice and get a given result for project A. Another person will be told to verify the first person’s experiment and to use it for the purposes of project B. The second person spends week after week attempting to recreate the first person’s outcomes with completely different results. Supervisors become agitated and demand that the results be reproduced. Eventually, the chemist is brings “acceptable” results, to which the supervisor inquires as to what the chemist was doing wrong for weeks. They reply that the material was decomposing at a very high oven temperature listed in the first person’s notes and that they simply turned it down one day.

The next few weeks are spent deforesting the land with paperwork in order to get the “deviation” to the original method approved.

There is no right way, only ways. One must be open to anything and not assume anything is correct or incorrect. Scientists say that one will never be able to synthesize elements with an atomic number above 120 for sound reasons. Scientists also said that an atom is indivisible.

My apologies for the long comment!


Hobbes said...

Dear Iwii,

Exeter is usually the hulking beast of memory - it's buried in the shadows of back quad, but during the summer, if the sun is high enough, it can be really pretty. Did you ever go to the candlelight Baroque recitals they have in there each term? If you fancy it, maybe you could coincide your next return to the city with one of their playing dates - Lei and I haven't been to one for about two years, and would love to go back with you, if it's your cup of tea.

Dear P_K,

I agree completely. Interestingly enough, Zen and catholic (little 'c') ritual are quite homogenous - but only on the outside. Shunryu Suzuki said something like, "We have Hinayana outside, but Mahayana inside", meaning the outside ritual is strongly prescribed, but this is only for the purposes of removing the distraction of what to do with our bodies, for something that is occurring internally. I am doing it a disservice, but that's a good starting point. :)

The Japanese chanoyu tea ceremony and the other "Zen arts" are like this: rigidly performed on the outside, Mahayana mind on the inside. From the outside, it looks dogmatic and rigid. I think this is why following ritual without questioning is dangerous. Copying ritual is very dangerous.

Dear Dissonance,

Thanks very much for the response - never apologise for writing! It's always a pleasure to read.

We have similar problems in our field (engineering mathematics). My colleague spent quite some time trying to recreate an experiment from a paper - the conceit being that science is supposed to be reproducable after all - but there was no way of obtaining the results from the original paper. Good science has to be more fluid than that, because there is much that cannot be codified in a paper or, in your case, a description in a technical report. I think it's bad business to attempt to do so, at least!

Scientists say that lots of things are impossible. Usually it means that we haven't figured out how to do it yet. :)

A good scientist knows that nothing is impossible, just theories that have yet to be exhaustively proven.



tieguanyin said...

Hello Hobbes,

Not to inject a little something else in the above discussion but I smiled at the mention of the fingers and the moon in your post.

Although I do not know the origin of this metaphor, my first memory of its mention was in "Enter Dragon". At the beginning of the film, Bruce Lee counsels a student not to focus on the finger but on the moon or otherwise miss the heavenly glory of the moon. Prior to imparting this thought, Bruce is having tea with a guest!

Great post and stimulating subsequent exchanges!

Have a great ~tea~ one :)!


Anonymous said...

Dear Hobbes:

I loved your post about rituals (Zen, Anglican, and Tea-ist), and I thoroughly agree that one should not mindlessly follow ritual forms. At best, it wastes one's time, and at worst, one gets carried away in projections of wisdom and infallibility that can rebound with horrendous results.

May I make a comment as a practicing Buddhist? You wrote that in the ideal case, outward rituals express inward qualities and convictions. However, my reading of Japanese Zen leads me to say just the opposite. Following external form creates -- incrementally -- a new subjectivity. For example, the emphasis placed on posture in zazen intends precisely to mold dignity and wakefulness in the practitioner. The posture creates the attitude of wakefulness, not the other way around. If one is sleepy or deluded, the instruction is to simply sit upright. The transformation begins at the surface, and later reaches the interior. .... This notion is articulated best in books about so-called "japanese psychotherapies" like Morita, and Naikan (spelling) by David Reynolds. I believe Margaret Lock also discusses it.
By the way, I'm a professor of cultural anthropology, a Buddhist, and also a tea lover!

Thanks again for your wonderful blog.

Regards, Paul


Hobbes said...

Dear TGY,

Thanks muchly!

Fingers pointing at moons is an old Zen simile. I love that Bruce Lee film, by the way!

Dear Paul,

One of the problems with saying anything at all about Zen is that it's likely to be insufficient by definition. :)

I try not to say too much about it, simply because it's also dangerous for a non-roshi like me to make statements about Zen. While no-one's listening, though, I'd say you're right about zazen/lotus posture forming the conditions for mindfulness - this is what I meant when I referred to removing external distractions such that mindfulness can come about. Making a distinction between "inside" and "outside" is also very dangerous and misleading, of course...

"Just sit", says Suzuki, and who am I to argue? :)



Anonymous said...

I remember these plays but thought they were only taking place by the end of Michaelmas and during summer. Since I spent most of my years in Cambridge, I have only been there once I think. New College Choir and City of Ox are also performing early plays frequently (but choral works of course).
Basically, I spent my years in Cambridge outside, mainly by the river Cam, and my time at Oxford's inside the chapels. Maybe just because I found Oxford's whereabouts less genuine than Cambridge's. But I know you really are an Oxford person, so it's a vain debate really :)

Hobbes said...

Actually I grew up in Cambridge, and my family live there - I'm a strange hybrid. ;)

Anonymous said...

I knew that already! And that makes things all the stranger to me. How could someone prefer an industrial city, riddled with tourists to a countryside heaven where afternoons are passing by so slowly, so flawlessly? I'll never figure out :o)
(Well you could argue now I'm in London, which is really the worst place on earth. So true, so true...)

Anonymous said...

Wow!!!! That IS a deep peice of writing. It is also very, very well written. Amazing how such things can make a diffrence. when you don't understand the meanig of somethings, they may seem so very mysterious.

Nice intellectual peice of writing, I enjoyed reading it.

Hmmm...for introduction's sake, allow me to introduce myself. i am a relatively new, 13 yr old, blogger.and I love reading stuff like this. Do keep up the good work.


Hobbes said...

Dear Iwii,

I like London a great deal. People often divide England into (i) London, (ii) not London. It's like a country unto itself. The sheer amount of "history" crammed into its tiny streets is enough to boggle my mind. Every random walk becomes significant, it really is quite something.

Cambridge is very nice, it's true. To me, it feels remote. When I go back, it's quiet (which is nice), but in a strange sort of way, it's also quite spread out and disjoint. Cambridge, for me, has rapidly turned from a beautiful university town into a series of colleges separated by large shops. Commercialism really is gripping that lovely old city. Those slow afternoons stretched out on The Backs are a thing of wonder, as you say. The Backs are one of Europe's cultural heritage sites, too.

Oxford is more dense. The majority of the beautiful colleges sit shoulder-to-shoulder. The vulgarity of the shops is generally constrained to the High and Cornmarket Street, and even they look better than most, being set in traditional buildings rented from colleges. I love the fact that you can walk along street after street and see nothing but beautiful architecture stretching back over the centuries.

It is full of tourists, certainly, but not without reason!

I'm not really biased, as I love both cities, and their character is quite different. Cambridge is lovely for a sunny summer day, a quick visit, but Oxford is (for me) a good city to actually live. And London makes my brain liquid, it's so vast. :)

Dear Crimson,

You are far too kind, but thank you for the comment. I am very impressed that you're doing something as creative as writing a blog at the age of 13.



Anonymous said...

Dear Hobbes, Thanks for the thoughtful post. If you have a source for the following I would be extremely grateful:

"n Zen, it is said that "delusion is valuable, it is like ice - the more delusion we have, the more obvious the effect when it is melted."

See post here:

Thanks, Kyoshin

Hobbes said...

Dear Kyoshin,

Thank you for linking to your blog - I have added it to my Reader, and have been enjoying your articles.

To answer your question, the quote about melting water was from Suzuki's "Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind".



Anonymous said...

Thanks Hobbes. That's rather interesting as one of Suzuki's disciples was a Jodo Shin priest who is now the head of the Buddhist Churches of America. I wonder if that's where he got the phrase from.

Anyway thanks and thanks also for your blog. It's way over my head but I like drinking tea and maybe I'll learn something!

Hobbes said...

To paraphrase Suzuki, "Read what I've written, then forget it." :)



Daniel said...

I'm curious about what you said about following ritual and copying ritual....especially in regards to Japanese tea ceremony.

Are you saying that practicing the Japanese tea ceremony is a bad thing to do? I agree that there is much more to it than the formalities and rules on its surface, for sure.

I know people who are caught up in the rules and aesthetic of the ceremony and that's it; and that makes as much sense to me as eating dinner with 5 forks, 3 spoons, and 8 knives.

I began learning the rules and etiquette of tea ceremony purely out of an interest in tea and the fact that this was a new form of tea. But, through my practice of the ceremony (about 2 years now) I've had somewhat of a glimpse into the spirit of it, the underlying essence behind all the rules and whatnot. And I feel that in order to see this or to feel this essence, you have to enter it from the outside; learn the rules and etiquette and then transcend them, move past them into something more. Or maybe they move into you in order for you to move beyond them?

Please tell me more of your thoughts about the tea ceremony.

BTW, I feel that this post and subsequent comments are right on. Very insightful and thought provoking.

Hobbes said...

Dear Daniel,

Many thanks for your comment. It's a very important point, and is exactly like asking the same question about zazen.

In the comments above, I referred to Suzuki-roshi's answer to this, which is a good one. He says, "Our practice has Hinayana mind on the outside, and Mahayana mind on the inside." From a facile point-of-view, it makes no sense to sit in zazen. Why do we bow before and after? Why must we sit in that way? Why must the mudra be formed the way it is?

The difference between Chanoyu (Japanese tea ceremony) and Gongfucha (Chinese tea ceremony) exactly characterise the difference between Japanese and Chinese learning. The same could be said of the difference between Zen and Chan (Chinese Zen, as known to Dogen, etc.). Japanese emphasises prescription on the outside, Chinese emphasises intuition. Which is the "right way"?

The point of my article is that there is no right way. There are many Chan patriarchs, there are many Zen patriarchs. There are many good gongfucha brews, there are many good chanoyu brews. How you get there is less important.

Everyone concentrates on asking the question, "Am I doing this right?"

So, when you ask if I think Japanese tea ceremony is the right way - I say "yes". When you ask if I think Chinese tea ceremony is the right way, I say "yes".



corax said...


superb. as usual. macte uirtute! these are not the musings of a beginner -- though of course i mean that in the best way.

your photo of exeter chapel made me realize i have never been in it during the daytime. it looks so different at night.

all the best, as always,

Hobbes said...

Dear Corax,

Too generous, as always. But don't stop. :)

It doesn't get much more gothic than Exeter, 'tis true. You can almost hear the ghosts...



Anonymous said...

Thank you from Denmark, and from the heart. Anja.

Hobbes said...

Very kind - thank you, Anja.



Anonymous said...

Ritual is used to reinforce a regular pattern of *doing*, not thinking. All social animals tend to regularize their activities, that is how they function within an orderly society, with each member carrying out specific tasks but also participating in joint activities like a 'superorganism' -like organized tissue within higher organisms. In fact, life 'morphed' from single cells thru increasing organiztion and complexity by social communion (chemical signalling that regularizes individual activity).

You see this chemical regularization even among single celled bacteria, acting within complex biofilm communities.

Ritual reduces disharmony by preventing actions from working against one another, when conjoint activity affords greater benefits for participating group members than individual activities provide to each member. By proscribing actions, you free the mind to focus on the larger goal - regularizing thoughts, reinforcing social order and reducing the Ego's role in acting outside of proscribed laws, social code and jointly held ethics/values.

Ritual is *important*, when meditation is the primary goal.

What does meditation accomplish? It frees the mind from over-emphasis of daily strife, toil and want, removing the false impression of it's importance in the larger path of life towards finding the best practicable service of individual natural talents, training and learning.

Through ritual, we develop a group sense that affords the individual a door to higher perception. In this higher perception, we analyze perceptions for truth (and falseness).

Why? Because we are walking brains, with eyes on neural stalks, driven by muscles operated by complex nerve conduits.

We operate on perceived reality, conveyed by the senses and rationalized by the higher brain into a semi-orderly "picture" of ourselves operating in a *consensus* environment. This picture is verified directly and indirectly, in infants and toddlers, through query, mimicry of role models, and derived crude approximation of perceived 'individual truth' with limited perception of the larger world supplied by group consensus of family and peers.

This crude understanding of self is refined, as the brain develops through kidhood and into the juvenile years, whence we build our concept of group membership and role responsibilities - again, largely gained by role model and peer group exploration of concepts.

Ritual, then, is important as a corrective patterning of shifting thoughts from purely self-driven to the adult version, largely altruistic 'family and community service' version.

Maturity is achieved sometime in the mid-late 20s, when rapidly growing offspring require significant altruism of parents to meet group needs, as resources are stretched and parental obligations increase, if offspring are to become successful individuals and societal participants.

Ritual is *very* important for humans.


Hobbes said...

Thanks for the thoughtful words, Intuit.

I am reminded of the Kongzi / Confucius school of thought, in which by regulates oneself, the family becomes regulated, and the state becomes regulated.